Are you mad about the racist Dove campaign?

Last week, Dove published an advertisement for cleansers showing a black woman metamorphosing into a white redhead. Since then, the Internet has been ablaze with criticism over the racist campaign. Dove seemed completely oblivious to the troubling fact that companies have sold cleaning products for decades by insinuating that “black skin is dirty” and “white skin is clean” (see the below Tweet for examples). Dove’s campaign is inexcusable, but I hope it can serve as a reminder that placing our feminist hopes in corporations is a dangerous game.


One of the smartest critics I’ve encountered on this subject is Andi Zeisler, who takes on former Dove campaigns at length in her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once. In her view, Dove is the epitome of what she calls “marketplace feminism: a phenomenon that describes corporations harnessing feminism to win over consumers. Over the last decade, Dove has built its marketing around the concept of body-positivity and diversity, while actively contradicting these ideals in their product lines. Zeisler articulates all of this more eloquently than I am, pointing out that while Dove might mean well, it still takes advantage of women’s insecurities to sell tanning creams and anti-cellulite lotions:

“Dove’s stated goals might be sincere, but the company is still part of a system whose bottom line depends on perpetuating female insecurity—and subtly encouraging women to blame themselves for it. And yet, simply because few other companies have dared to engage with the subject of mediated beauty standards, Dove continues to be seen as the company that cares. The fact that it cares just enough not to put revenues in jeopardy (and not enough to cease inventing new insecurities and products to address them) isn’t important in a marketplace where simply flirting with body acceptance still seems radical.”

Zeisler recognizes that these shallow campaigns are symptoms of a larger problem, which is that corporations care about profit, not social justice. Dove might have actually wanted to celebrate diversity (I'm doubtful), but its underlying motivation was sales. After all, its last nod to diversity -- the "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" -- was credited with boosting the beauty supplier's sales by $1.5 billion. And although it's tempting to idealize "feminist"-seeming corporations, it's important to remember that their quarterly earnings will trump their altruism every single time.

Take the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" series I just mentioned. On the surface, these commercials encourage ladies to “recognize their beauty,” no matter what they look like. However, underneath this facade of self-acceptance is some troubling logic about women, self-esteem, and body image. Not only do many of the commercials emphasize beauty as the key determinant of a woman’s self-worth, but they also shame women for not recognizing their own attractiveness.

The “Real Beauty Sketches” video (above) is a perfect example. The commercial shows a series of women describing their features to a portraitist in uniformly self-flagellating terms. The sketches grossly magnify these ladies’ self-proclaimed “problem areas.” To show how much women underestimate their own beauty, the portraitist then draws their faces based on descriptions given by these women’s friends. Without fail, the sketch artist creates more conventionally beautiful portraits based on the third-party input. The take-home message is that we women are too hard on ourselves. We're probably more beautiful than we realize.

But think about the takeaways for a moment. Consider that the actresses who see their “more flattering” sketches don’t come away happy. Instead, they berate themselves. They question the validity of their own perceptions and confess their feelings of guilt at having understated their beauty. One actress who looks particularly ashamed of her miscalculations tells the camera, “I have a lot of work to do on myself.” For a “body positive” commercial, this one sure raises a lot of negative emotions.

Dove’s latest gaffe is too explicitly racist for most people to justify. However, back when Dove released its first "Campaign for Real Beauty" videos, most viewers were proponents -- including me. A beauty company advocating for all body types seemed like real progress. If someone had clarified to me that Dove’s advertisement was meant to sell anti-cellulite firming cream, I would have considered that person a debbie-downer. Wasn’t corporate feminism better than no feminism at all? I would have probably made the very justifications that Zeisler lists in her book:

“Those who identified [the "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”] as a blatant shill were accused of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Dove was part of a multinational corporation, after all, went the rationalization. We can’t exactly expect them not to want to move units. At least they’re trying to do it in a way that nods to size positivity and women’s confidence. Right?”

But Zeisler has a sharp rebuttal to these excuses. She shows that dethroning Dove isn’t the point. What matters is that the beauty industry’s hypocrisy causes real harm. The same companies touting feminism are causing breast cancer and perpetuating skin-color bias:  

“If Estée Lauder and Revlon care so much about preventing breast cancer, for instance, you’d think they might do a better job of making sure their products are free of known carcinogens. If Dove truly wants to broaden how we think about beauty globally, parent company Unilever might want to reconsider the skin-lightening creams like Fair & Lovely that it hawks across the Middle East and South Asia.”

Actions speak louder than advertisements, and the actions of places like Estée Lauder, Revlon, and Dove pretty clearly contradict their “do-good” positioning. Under the guise of "feminism," these kinds of companies are actually hindering pretty basic goals. Even worse, they often succeed in convincing consumers that their brand campaigns are a sign of political progress. Dove's latest faux-pas is the rule -- not the exception. So let's remember that corporations are not feminists, and that brand positioning is not feminism. 


Psst -- Be sure to read Jenn Armbrust’s interview on her Feminist Business School to see what a feminist business really looks like! 

Books Mentioned